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VA, state and local communities working together to improve veterans resources

Rod Wittmier, executive director of VetsMeetVets, and April Graff make preparations for a recent holiday social at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System - American Lake in Lakewood.

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On any given day, more than 150 homeless veterans wander along the streets and highways near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Some stand on the off-ramps outside the bases' gates, holding signs asking for money.

A common scene for commuters passing through the Madigan Healthcare System Gate is a homeless veteran who holds his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs identification card, proof of his service to the nation. The cardboard plea for help represents the state to which he has fallen.

Many active-duty Soldiers and Airmen will be leaving the military and JBLM in the next few years, and the federal government and nonprofit agencies are ramping up to ensure that none of them end up homeless - a sad reality for more than 65,000 veterans across the nation. Vets make up 10 percent of the nation's homeless population.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, about 1.5 million other veterans are at risk to become homeless. They are predominantly male, single, come from urban areas and suffer from some type of mental illness or addiction.

Five percent are women, but that number has been trending upward during the 10 years since 9/11.

Recent numbers released by the VA are a good sign, especially since President Barack Obama announced two years ago that the federal government would eradicate veteran homelessness by 2015.

Last week, the VA announced that from January 2010 to January 2011, veteran homelessness decreased by 12 percent.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki said that community organizations and federal, state and local government agencies have been working hard since the president's announcement to achieve that goal.

"This new report is good news for the tens of thousands of veterans we have helped find a home," Shinseki said in a press release.

"Our progress in the fight against homelessness has been significant, but our work is not complete until no veteran has to sleep on the street."

The VA has made more than $100 million available to community agencies to prevent veterans from falling into homelessness through the VA's Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a homeless-prevention and rapid re-housing program.

"The problems that lead to homelessness begin long before veterans and their Families are on the streets," Shinseki said. "By putting more resources into prevention services for those at risk of becoming homeless, we will continue to help more veterans and their Families turn their lives around."

That's the dilemma facing Rod Wittmeier, the executive director of VetsMeetVets in Buckley, Wash. and a veteran himself. With a stagnant economy, high unemployment and possible behavioral health issues resulting from multiple deployments, he finds it is tough for local nonprofits and government entities like the VA and Department of Labor to be at the forefront trying to reduce the number of homeless veterans.

Now that the war in Iraq is over and the Army plans to reduce the force by 50,000 Soldiers during the next five years, more veterans will be looking for civilian jobs, going to school and seeking places to live. The stress of such major transitions can be overwhelming for some veterans, Wittmeier said.

To address the need to smooth the transition from military to civilian life, he has created a nonprofit in which veterans help down-on-their-luck veterans by helping to build community projects or serving as life coaches.

VetsMeetVets acts as middleman for veterans, directing them to services provided by VA or other nonprofit agencies. The organization also hosts rampathons, where veterans help disabled veterans by building wheelchair ramps, or collecting blankets and clothing for homeless veterans to stay warm during the cold holiday season.

Wittmeier's said his calling is to end veteran homelessness, and ultimately, suicide. He believes the best way to do that is to get the new veterans to do something they aren't always encouraged to do in the military - ask for help. "We came home tough, but tough isn't enough," Wittmeier said.

"There's that attitude that I can do it on my own ... but you can't do it on your own. Reach out your hand and accept the fact that there's a seasoned veteran ready to take your hand and lead you." 80 years of stress

Wittmeier hears frustration from older veterans about why today's younger generation is having so many problems readjusting after combat. He said today's Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have spent on average more than 1,000 days in combat, compared to 200 days for Vietnam veterans and 40 days for World War II counterparts.

"Six years in today's military is like 80 years of stress in a community," Wittmeier said, echoing the words of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli. "It takes a breakdown before a breakthrough."

As it did with Vietnam-era vets, it will take time for 9/11 veterans to open up about their issues. When that time comes, Wittmeier will provide help in the form of older veterans who have experienced the same situations as those of more recently returning veterans.

"We will interject as brothers and sisters at arms, grab their shoulders, and pull them in close," he said.

Reducing procrastination Finding breakthroughs can be difficult for veterans blaming themselves for their situations. Addiction, behavioral health problems and lack of understanding of veterans' benefits are among the reasons veterans fall through the cracks. Getting them off drugs is a top priority, followed closely by appointments with VA health or benefits counselors who are trained to deal with problems associated with homelessness and suicide, Wittmeier said.

Seasoned veterans volunteer as accountability coaches for veterans in the program. Their biggest task - stop procrastination. If a veteran wants to register for college, for example, the accountability coach requires the veteran to create a plan of action and set a registration date. When that date arrives, the coach checks to ensure the veteran followed through.

"When the spiral of negativity starts, it creates a world of lack of integrity, and not doing what you said you would do," Wittmeier said.

Community of action Left up to Wittmeier, no veteran would ever be homeless, depressed or contemplating suicide because they would be too involved in the community to feel alone or forgotten. His organization's goal is for every current and future veteran to feel that way.

What if 25 million veterans became excited about volunteering in their community? he asked rhetorically.

"Helping out in the community and turning a ‘what's in it for me' culture into ‘what can I do for you' culture ... that will lift this nation," Wittmeier said.

He counsels Airmen and Soldiers to start preparing a year before retiring or separating from the service. And if a veteran needs help, the VA, nonprofits or his organization are only a phone call away.

"If you want a powerful life worth living, take on a mission that is bigger than yourself," Wittmeier said. "When that positive mental shift happens, self esteem goes up, you'll start smiling again and stop blaming other people."


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